Rolling Stone Errors Highlight Poor Journalism, Perpetuate Rape Culture

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Trigger Warning: This editorial contains discussion of sexualized violence.

 After weeks of controversy over the veracity of a Rolling Stone article on rape at the University of Virginia, an anonymous source came forward on Tuesday claiming that the deputy managing editor of the magazine, Sean Woods, had offered his letter of resignation to Rolling Stone’s founder and publisher, Jann Wenner. The move follows a series of journalistic errors that has unnecessarily diverted media attention away from the realities of campus sexual assault.

The article, “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, told the story of a first-year, “Jackie,” who was gang raped by seven men at a Phi Kappa Psi fraternity party in 2012. Though the piece was initially hailed as having the potential to change the national conversation about sexual assault, journalists from the Washington Post, Slate and elsewhere began to call into question key elements of the story shortly after its publication.

Following these allegations and the ensuing public outrage, Rolling Stone’s Managing Editor, Will Dana, published a letter on Dec. 5 apologizing for the magazine’s decision not to reach out to the accused rapists for comment. “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account.” Rolling Stone later updated its apology to remove language saying that its “trust in [Jackie] was misplaced.”

While the fallout from the article has brought to light a number of poor editorial choices, the magazine’s decision to abide by Jackie’s request was not its biggest error; its decision not to accurately describe how Erdely reported the story was. As Dana explains in his letter, this is the sort of tough choice that editors make every day. But had Rolling Stone’s editors disclosed the fact that they had chosen not to reach out to the accused students when the story was initially published, the article would have at least been framed in the proper context.

Yet Rolling Stone also fumbled its apology. Rolling Stone’s initial statement, which blamed Jackie rather than its own staff for the publication’s mistakes, is symptomatic of the same rape culture that led to the initial crime. Intentionally or not, in writing that its trust in Jackie was “misplaced,” Rolling Stone invalidated the experiences of survivors far beyond the University of Virginia. Survivors of sexual assault are continually told that their testimony is not credible or that they do not have enough evidence to prove foul play. Often, survivors’ testimonies are imperfect, but not because they are fabrications. Rather, survivors’ testimonies often get blurred by the trauma that follows an assault and in the length of time it can take for them to come forward with allegations. Rolling Stone’s apology, unfortunately, lends harmful credence to those who believe survivors lie about their traumatic experiences.

Not only did survivors of rape and sexual assault find the apology triggering and invalidating, it may also discourage survivors from coming forward in the future. At a Senate subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, Democratic Senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who together have been pushing Congress to combat sexual assault on college campuses, expressed concern that Rolling Stone’s letter would weaken their efforts.

“I am sad and angry because it is a setback for survivors in this country,” McCaskill said. “This is not a crime where you have random false reporting or embellishment. This is a crime that is the most underreported crime in America and will remain so. Our problem is not victims coming forward and embellishing; our problem is victims are too frightened to come forward.”

Amid the fallout from within the journalistic community, few media responses have actually addressed the journalistic problems with this case. One important exception is Alexis Sobel Fitts’s piece “How to handle a story correction” in the Columbia Journalism Review, which challenges Rolling Stone’s lack of transparency throughout the process.

“[R]ather than tweaking an apology in response to the findings of other media organizations, past mea culpas suggest that Rolling Stone would be best served by launching its own investigation from the get-go,” Fitts wrote. “Full transparency — which includes researching the extent of inaccuracies and disclosing the editorial practices that allowed them to occur — is even more important in a digital culture, when the story of journalism gone wrong can go viral before the offending organization has a chance to address it.”

It is too soon to tell whether Rolling Stone will heed the advice of critics like Fitts. However, it is clear that the magazine’s current strategy has done more harm than good, and that careful, honest journalism is essential in the necessary work of bringing survivors’ stories to light.

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